Ki Teitzei–The triumph of interest

You shall not charge interest on loans to another Israelite, interest on money, interest on provisions, interest on anything that is lent . . . . so that the LORD your God may bless you in all your undertakings in the land that you are about to enter and possess. (Deut 23:20-21)

The term used here for “interest” is neshekh ; elsewhere in the Torah another word for interest, tarbit or marbit is also used.  Some interpreters think this refers to two different kinds of interest, neshekh being deducted in advance, tarbit / marbit being added at the time of repayment (so, e.g., the JPS translation).   It’s more likely that the two terms both refer generally to “interest” from different sides of the transaction. Neshekh, meaning bite, was the term used for the exaction of interest from the point of view of the debtor, and tarbit or marbit, meaning increase, was the term used for the recovery of interest by the creditor.

This prohibition has not been upheld in practice from biblical times onward.  In the prophetic books, the creditor (nosheh), far from giving free loans, is often described as exacting and implacable (cf. 1Sam. 22:2), and the prophet decries those who have “taken interest and increase” and forgotten God (Ezek. 22:12). Nehemiah had to rebuke the noble and the rich for exacting interest, “every one to his brother” (Neh. 5:7).

By the time of the Talmud, spiritual leaders of the Jewish community decided it was better to regulate the practice than ineffectually oppose it, so various legal subterfuges were found to square the practice of charging interest with the biblical mandate.

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